Diana n'Athena is ready to go home. An "Amazon" from the all female planet of "dey Sorormin" (which Wolfe translates as the Sisterhood), Diana is a sociologist employed by the Terran Intergalactic Empire for the last 20 years as a Cultural Liaison and Feild Operative. Approaching forty, Diana has served the last five years on Aggar, a patriarchal, pre-industrial, semi-feudal planet located on the Empire's border. Over six foot tall, lean, strong and brown-eyed, Diana must pass as male to work effective on Aggar. Such a charade is not uncommon for Amazons serving on "primitive" planets, but it does wear on their spirits. Facing her last mission before she can return to her home world, Diana must locate and rescue a Terran pilot. He carries information that may mean the salvation of the Empire which is on the brink of war.
After years of working alone, Diana is not pleased when Aggar's ruling Council of Ten assigns her a native "Shadowmate." Shadows are individuals trained for years to act as guides, protectors, linguists, trackers, companions and whatever else is needed to aide the individual whom the Council has determined is important to the future of Aggar. Such assignments are one of the ways the Council "tips the balance" of fate for pivotal individuals and gently guides the planet's future.
Diana's Shadow, Elana is particularly special. In addition to her training and expertise, she bears the rare "Blue Sight." This extrasensory gift (genetically linked with blue eyes) allows her to read people's intent via their aura and create illusions. For years Elana has been training to become a Shadow. For the last five years she's been experiencing dreamlike visions of the Amazon that she is to Shadow.
Shadows of Aggar is a classic heroic quest. As such, the journey itself, what happens to both women during the trek and what they learn from the various encounters, is as important as the result of the quest. -- Although having the end of the empire as it is known hang in the balance does build the suspense! -- There are some similarities between Aggar and some other fantasy realms. Yet these parallels reflect cultural archetypes and Wolfe, who died in 1997, created some interesting, unique details and characteristics for three cultures: Aggar, Amazon and Terran. For example, imagine a race of humans whose skin color changes with excitement or exertion, thus making the racial differences we know, moot. Furthermore, Wolfe created the basics of a language for the "dey Sorormin" and provided a glossary of words from Aggar and the Sisterhood in the back for reference.
"Shadows" was originally released in 1991, and this reader has returned to it at least twice in the last decade. The story and characters hold up to re-reading. The same is true of Wolfe's second Aggar novel, Fires of Aggar. Happily, the publisher has made a commitment to keep Wolfe's titles in print. The new covers of both titles are disappointing and distracting. Yet, to coin a phrase, don't judge the book by it's current cover. If you like fantasy stories with strong female leads that explore complex issues of gender roles, societal pressures to conform and their impacts on the individual -- not to mention a good old fashioned adventure with a touch of lavender romance -- you'll enjoy Shadows of Aggar. Pick up a copy of it and its companion book, Fires of Aggar.